Math Is Hard

I Hate Math!

Math is hard for middle school students. Too many young minds believe they will never be good at math because numbers and logical thought processes are simply too complex to grasp at first glance. [They may have even heard an adult or two say: It’s okay. I’m not good at math either.]

Today’s learners expect instant gratification. If they cannot figure out a problem in five seconds they give up and wait. They are conditioned and know the teacher will provide the answer in short time. The idea of trying and failing and trying again is very foreign to most young people these days. Grit is not part of their vocabulary or experience.

What the world rarely emphasizes to students is that the brain is a muscle, and like every other muscle in the body, the brain grows stronger with practice and repetition. The brain grows in intelligence—even in math—just as the legs grow stronger and faster in running. With the proper training, the brain can learn math just as the body learns athletics.

If we could instill a sense of determination and perseverance in academics as deeply as we do in athletics, then perhaps students would not struggle in math as much as they do. Maybe students would be more motivated to pursue lifelong learning if they felt a deeper confidence that comes from overcoming difficult challenge.

Need. More. Grit.

Brain CaveStudents today need more grit—perseverance wedded to the pursuit of a goal. Students today need a growth mindset—the belief that they can grow their intelligence and abilities. A middle school math class is the perfect place to teach grit and growth-mindset to eager, young minds. If we can convince them they can conquer math, then perhaps they will believe they can excel in other academic subjects too.

One way to do this is to incorporate grit and growth mindset learning (GGML) in a Genius-Hour model. One day every week is devoted to at least 30 minutes (more if possible) of design-thinking projects that create an inquiry-based classroom. Over the course of one year, students would participate in nearly 30+ hours of GGML in the classroom as well as 30+ hours of hands-on experiential learning outside school through their projects.

The first unit of study would focus specifically on GGML with projects like:

  • MindMaps—Spider-web diagrams with focus questions like: What is grit and how do we get it? What is growth-mindset and why do we need it?
  • Grit Wordles—Students create visual word clouds with keywords that help them encourage each other to persevere through challenge and grow their abilities, especially in the math classroom. Make these into posters and share them around the school with teachers and classmates.
  • Grit Manifesto—Statements of belief for students written and designed by students. Make these into posters as well.
  • Brain Tips-of-the-Day—Factoids about adolescent brain development. Weekly Brain ToD’s teach students how their brains grow physically as well as give them hints about how to use their brains to the highest potential.
  • Grit and Growth-Mindset Scales—Using Angela Duckworth’s Grit Scale and Carol Dweck’s Growth-Mindset profile, pre- and post-assess these character traits to measure student growth and impact of GGML. An end-of-unit reflection invites students to write blogs that encourage web readers to engage their own GGML.

The second unit of study would focus on design-thinking (DT). Students drive the course of action by answering the “How Might We” (HMW) questions and create their own projects. Questions such as these might begin the DT unit:

  • HMW make our school more welcoming?
  • HMW help middle school students get better organized?
  • HMW create a recycling program in our school?

The DT process at the Stanford University teaches students how to create innovative solutions to complex problems through the cycle: Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. This is the scientific method in its most creative form and dovetails mathematical concepts with practical application. By solving real-world problems, students connect education with more than merely receiving knowledge. They become idea-economy students. [Information-economy means “You hire me for what I know.” Idea-economy means “You hire me for what I can do.”]

DT is the delivery system that invites GGML into the math core content. DT offers students the opportunity to increase their grit and growth-mindset through the design-prototype-test-redesign process. Each testing and redesign phase calls students to try again after failure. Using a series of divergent and convergent questions throughout the DT process, math skills are easily integrated into the prototyping and testing phases to ultimately arrive at real-world solutions to the HMW questions.

We can empower students to change the world if we give them the academic tools as well as the character tools that help them succeed. Grit and growth-mindset, design-thinking and curiosity are vital for their future in this global world.

We must create scaleable programs that can be easily adopted in all schools for all students, not just the students fortunate enough to attend charter schools or high-priced private schools. The key will be to define an educational model that educators feel is possible, achievable and sustainable.

Grit and Growth Mindset Learning in a middle school math class is an excellent place to start. Let’s take the opportunity to run fast.